Adding vitamin supplements, including folic acid and vitamin B12, to the diet of pregnant mice caused their offsprings' weight to increase -- and the increase continued through generations.
Folic acid, vitamin B12, and certain similar vitamins add methyl groups to DNA, which impacts gene activity -- part of a new field known as epigenetics.
Previous research has found that methyl donors affect the gene activity of mice pups when added to the mother's diet, such as changing the coat color of mice with a mutation in a coat-color gene called agouti from yellow to brown.
Researchers say the supplements acted on the mice, known as agouti variable yellow or Ayy, by methylating a part of DNA that controls the coat-color gene.
The Ayy mice were also obese, and the researchers examined whether their weight could be affected by epigenetics. Ayy females were fed methyl-donating compounds including folic acid, vitamin B12, betaine, and choline, in amounts similar to those received by humans taking vitamin supplements.
Although the researchers expected the pups' weight to decrease over generations as the methylation of the Ayy mutation increased, the mice gained weight over the generations. Non-Ayy mice showed a similar weight-gaining trend.
The findings bring in another dimension to how maternal nutrition could affect the human fetus, and add to the debate over whether pregnant women should increase their intake of folic acid, a supplement that's commonly used by expectant mothers to reduce the risk of spina bifida in newborns.
To me, this represents a powerful lesson to learn when we seek to play God and believe that if we eat highly processed convenience foods and add a few synthetic vitamins back in, we achieve all the same benefits as the supplements as in the original package.
This sure doesn't appear to be the case, and this startling observation should teach all of us an extraordinary lesson.
First of all, most likely everyone reading this realizes that folic acid is an extraordinary nutrient, and the best source is in fresh uncooked vegetables. It produces a number of benefits including:
And the list goes on and on and on. It is nearly endless.
Of course, one of the primary reasons folic acid is in nearly every prenatal supplement is that it has been clearly associated with decreased neural tube defects when given to pregnant women, which is why this study was performed.
I have always suggested that the best way to achieve healthy levels of this essential nutrient is from eating plenty of fresh vegetables, especially dark green, leafy ones.
Eating plenty of fresh, uncooked vegetables is without question the best way to make certain you are receiving an ideal daily dose of folic acid (and hundreds of other known and unknown nutrients).
Many of us, though, just simply can't seem to find enough time to consume all the vegetables we should be eating so we rely on synthetic vitamin supplements to receive the same benefits.
Unfortunately, as this study shows, using the synthetic version just simply isn't the same as taking the nutrients the way they were designed to be consumed -- with all the other completely balanced accessory micronutrients, which collectively are far more powerful than the isolated one.
In this study, the researchers speculate that the methyl donor function of folic acid may actually be methylating some unknown gene.
The potential implications of this research are staggering, as many countries, including the United States, have initiated mandatory "fortification" of grains and flours to increase the folic acid levels in women.
Sometimes a little knowledge is dangerous. The professional arrogance of most physicians who have studied a little biochemistry and believe that they understand these complex interrelationships can be causing far more harm than good.
The arrogance doesn't stop in the physician's office, as I can't tell you how many people would come into my office with the proverbial shopping bag full of supplements for their initial visit with me seeking help on choosing the right ones. They were frequently taking hundreds of dollars of supplements a month and hoping one of them would be a magic bullet to solve their problem.
So how can you avoid the confusion and craziness?
Just go back to basics and eat as simply as possible. Avoid processed foods like the plague as they are the primary source of the problem. Eat a wide variety of fresh, ideally locally grown, organic foods that are prepared in your home with tender loving care. Eat raw whenever you can and cook your food as little as possible; cooking typically will seriously diminish the nutrient density of your food.
Seek to create more time in your life so you don't have to rely on convenience foods that contain large amounts of processed ingredients and chemicals. Also seek to limit your use of restaurants and eat as many meals at home as possible.
When you follow these principles along with other elements from my comprehensive Nutrition Plan, you will typically receive most of the vitamins and micronutrients you need, and in their best form.